Rafał Majka sat on his top tube in the Tour de France mixed zone after stage 17 with his arms folded. Job done. Tadej Pogačar has had the winning of this Tour since amassing a virtually insurmountable lead at the end of the first week, but doubts had still persisted as to whether his UAE Team Emirates squad were strong enough to defend his yellow jersey all the way to Paris.
Pogačar had found himself isolated on some big climbs, or at least outnumbered by Ineos Grenadiers, but a few moments of suffering atop Mont Ventoux on stage 12 aside, he has been able to resolve most problems by himself.
On stage 17 to the Col du Portet, however, Pogačar's UAE Team Emirates guard delivered their most consistent display of the Tour to date, controlling the breakaway's lead over the Col de Peyresourde and Col du Val Louron-Azet before teeing up the yellow jersey's stage-winning attack on the interminable climb to the finish.
Majka was the last man with Pogačar after Brandon McNulty swung off at the base of the climb, and the Pole was able to ferry his leader as far as the final 8.5km. Most of Richard Carapaz's Ineos squad had been burnt off by that point, though there was still some heavy lifting left for Pogačar to perform, not that he struggled under the burden. Only Carapaz and Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) could follow his pace, and he outsprinted them both at the summit for his second stage win of this Tour.
"It's tough but we showed we have a very strong team here. Now nobody can say we're not strong," Majka grinned. "Sometimes you need to play the card and let the breakaway go but today we showed it. We made a really hard tempo on all the climbs and Tadej won."
Majka was a faller on stage 13 to Carcassonne and though X-rays that evening showed no fractures, his participation in the race was in doubt in the days immediately afterwards. On Wednesday, however, he had recovered sufficiently to guide Pogačar almost halfway up the Col du Portet.
"I have still a problem with my ribs after my big crash, but day by day it's getting better," he said. "I'm here to support Tadej, and today we knew we wanted to win the stage with the yellow jersey."
While Majka was signed from Bora-Hansgrohe during the off-season expressly to bolster the climbing contingent around Pogačar for the defence of his Tour title, Marc Hirschi was a rather more opportunistic signing.
The Swiss rider was picked up by UAE Team Emirates in January after Team DSM surprisingly terminated his contract, and although he has not scaled the remarkable heights he reached in last autumn's Tour, he was prominent at the head of the peloton earlier on the stage.
"It was a perfect day," Hirschi said when he reached the mixed zone after the finish. "When the break is OK to control, then you want to try to win the stage and Tadej had the legs. He did an amazing performance and for the team, it's an amazing day.
"The first idea was to defend the jersey and not lose time, but it's even better to go for the win."
Chris Froome spoke for many ahead of the third week when he declared the Tour to be over "if Pogačar stays on his bike," and that analysis looked just as sound after stage 17. Pogačar's overall lead now stands at 5:39 over Vingegaard and 5:43 on Carapaz, and a second yellow jersey in Paris is an inevitability.
It remains to be seen, however, if the Slovenian wishes to garland his ineluctable overall success with a third stage victory atop Luz Ardiden on Thursday afternoon.
"He has also tomorrow. He has to defend the jersey again, but if he has the chance to go for the win then, OK, we'll try," said Hirschi, who suggested the celebrations would be muted in the UAE Team Emirates hotel. "For sure we'll have a nice dessert, but it's not finished yet."
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